Samantha Barbas. The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. viii + 417 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-24213-5; $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-24985-1.
Reviewed by Steven Sheehan (Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley)
Published on Jhistory (November, 2007)
Samantha Barbas has written a comprehensive biography of the infamous Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Offering neither an apology nor a hatchet job of this controversial figure, the author succeeds in separating truth from legend to chronicle Parsons' life and to demonstrate the important role she played in the rise of America's contemporary celebrity culture. Along the way, Barbas takes the reader on a behind-the-scenes tour of Hollywood in its Golden Age, offers insight into the history of gender and sexuality in the twentieth century, and analyzes important connections between the histories of cinema and journalism.
Louella Parsons was born Louella Oettinger in Freeport, Illinois, in 1881. As a teenager, she moved with her family to Dixon, Illinois. She was a voracious reader and aspired toward a career in writing. She married John Parsons in 1905 and moved with him to Burlington, Iowa, where she gave birth to a girl named Harriet. He embarked on an extramarital affair. Unable to fit into Burlington society and abandoned by her husband, Louella moved to Chicago with her daughter in 1910.
Parsons’ only pleasure in Burlington had been the local movie theater, and by the time she arrived in Chicago, she was "thoroughly immersed in movie fan culture" (p. 31). She parlayed that interest into a career that spanned half a century. In 1911 she became the chief scenario editor at Chicago's Essanay studios, gaining a foothold in the movie industry and an income that allowed her to file for divorce. She left Essanay to write a movie column from an insider's perspective at the Chicago Herald and also entered into a second mismatched marriage. In 1917 she moved to New York where she wrote a film column for the daily Telegraph and became a significant player in the city's film circles while her second marriage dissolved.
In the mid 1920s, she jumped across town to the American, one of the flagship papers in William Randolph Heart's publishing empire. She finally landed in Los Angeles in 1926 to write for Hearst's Examiner. Through that paper and Hearst's syndication service, she reached more than six million readers per day. For the next thirty years, she used her column and several radio programs to rule as "the First Lady of Hollywood," shaping the fates of film stars, movies, and entire studios by bestowing her blessings, chastising, panning, or ignoring, all according to personal tastes, friendships, and animosities. She finally found a fitting romantic match, marrying Hollywood doctor Harry Martin in 1930. Parsons maintained few close personal relationships beyond those with her husband and daughter; however, much of Hollywood's film community offered tribute out of respect for her power.
Yet her power did not go unchallenged. Time publisher Henry Luce harbored a personal dislike for Louella and gladly used his own publications to attack one of Hearst's star columnists. Much of Hollywood welcomed the emergence of Hedda Hopper--another notable gossip columnist--in the late 1930s as a rival who might curb Parsons's power. Loeulla's influence and audience waned in the 1950s during the decline of the studio system she had helped to foster and from which her power had derived.
The book's scholarly narration of a complex life that has generally been distorted by myth and outright fabrication constitutes one of its major strengths. Previous accounts, such as George Eels' Hedda and Louella (1972), focus on her public persona. Parsons also appears as a bit player in a number of gossipy star biographies, where she is usually caricatured as a brassy, conniving intruder. Barbas visits many familiar sources, such as Parsons's own published work and the biographies of William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, and other notables with whom she associated.
To cut through the legend, the author also exploits an impressive array of more obscure sources, including the Dixon, Illinois newspaper, divorce records, oral histories, and, with great success, archived private and professional correspondence. Thus, she makes definitive statements about events such as Parsons' legendary feud with Hedda Hopper (real animosity there) and her alleged role in hiding a murder committed by Hearst (no murder there).
This analysis of Parsons' life also offers insight into the history of gender and sexuality in the twentieth century. Parsons was one of a handful of "girl reporters" working at major American newspapers in the early twentieth century. Because the early movies were seen as a passing, feminine fad, women who were deemed unsuitable for serious reporting were allowed to cover the cinema. Parsons seized on this meager opportunity to become a prominent newspaperwoman. She was also an outspoken advocate for women's rights in the 1920s, particularly on the subject of professional opportunity for women in journalism. She helped found, and briefly presided over, the New York Women's Newspaper Club, a networking and advocacy organization for the city's women journalists. Through word and deed, she helped blaze a trail that many female reporters soon followed.
Yet at the same time, Parsons reinforced gender and sexual stereotypes in her columns and radio programs. Cutting her teeth during cinema's scandalous early years, Parsons believed that the best way to establish the legitimacy of the fledgling industry and to undermine censorship campaigns was to maintain a squeaky-clean image. As a result, her columns usually presented film stars as models of middle-class domesticity. When stars did not live up to that image, or, more importantly, when they refused to allow Louella to maintain the illusion that they lived up to it, she could be ruthless. For instance, Parsons played a significant role in torpedoing Ingrid Bergman's Hollywood career when the star refused to hide or apologize for her extramarital affair.
The book provides an important case study of the close relationship between journalists and Hollywood's elite during the studio era. Studio executives depended on Parsons not merely to promote their products, but also to help maintain their control over the industry. In particular, Parsons' ability to build or destroy individual stars made her an important ally in maintaining studio control over talent. In turn, Parsons relied on the studio system's power structure to maintain her position as the "First Lady of Hollywood." Most notably, for many years she benefited from a forty-eight-hour exclusive on all studio-generated news that executives bestowed upon her to cultivate positive press.
Finally, this biography augments our understanding of the development of America's celebrity culture. Newspapers carried celebrity news before the advent of the movies, largely focusing on the private lives of stage stars and politicians. Other venues, particularly movie fan magazines, carried news of film stars. "But by writing a daily column exclusively devoted to motion pictures and by extending the existing celebrity journalism tradition to film stars," Barbas argues, "Louella pioneered a new journalistic format and started a new chapter in the history of American celebrity" (p. 44).
Ultimately, this book demonstrates that Parsons' career did not merely coincide with the film industry's emergence and growth, but that Parsons played an instrumental role in establishing our cult of celebrity and ensuring that its saints and priests would reside in Hollywood. While traditional accounts of the art and business of Hollywood rightfully focus on the pioneering roles of such men as director D. W. Griffith and studio head Louis B. Mayer, this book demonstrates that any analysis of Hollywood as a cultural phenomenon must account for Louella Parsons.
Louella outlived her husband, Hearst, and most of the stars with whom she had mingled. She passed her final years in a Southern California convalescent home, a relic from a bygone era. In the New Hollywood of the 1960s and 1970s "the lines of power within the entertainment industry had become at once more intricate and diffuse" (p. 342). No longer could a select group of studio heads and gossip columnists control film talent or mold public opinion. When she died in 1972, few people noticed or cared. Ironically, she was forgotten by a world she had helped to create. This biography helps us remember Parsons, and in many ways, to know her for the first time. It also sheds light on the genesis of our contemporary celebrity-and-scandal-obsessed popular culture. It is an important work for those interested in the history of American celebrity culture, gender, Hollywood, or journalism, or for anyone who enjoys a fascinating read.
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Steven Sheehan. Review of Barbas, Samantha, The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons.
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